Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose…
Yondan promotion essay by Keith R.A. DeCandido
In 2004, I was 35 years old, living in Riverdale with my girlfriend Terri. My writing career was going quite well—that particular year, I had a USA Today best-selling Star Trek novel, the first novel in my original fantasy series Dragon Precinct, and two movie novelizations all published, as well as a couple of short stories and an essay or three. Most of my income derived from writing, though I also did some freelance editorial work. My cell phone was a Motorola flip-phone, and I spent a great deal of time at Palumbo Bakery with my laptop doing my writing. I hadn’t owned a car in twelve years.
And on the 20th of September of that year, I walked into our dojo for the first time and took a white-belt class.
Seventeen years later, I’m 52 years old, living in Woodlawn Heights with my wife Wrenn. My writing career is still going well, though the face of it has changed considerably. My per-year income from writing has actually gone down in the last seventeen years, and I’ve had to diversify, with writing for a pop-culture web site and teaching karate to kids supplementing the fiction writing and editing income. We now own two cars (I have no idea how that happened, really). I have a Samsung smartphone that has more computing power than the laptop that I used to take to Palumbo Bakery—which has since shut down, and these days I do most of my writing in my home office in any event.
And on the 10th of November of this year, I will walk into our dojo again as a white belt, this time with the hope of starting my journey to yondan.
In many ways, I’m the same person who walked into the dojo seventeen years ago. My personality hasn’t really changed all that much. I’m still a generally happy and optimistic person. A dear friend once said something that I still consider words to live by: “pessimism is a misuse of imagination.” I’m still a writer of science fiction and fantasy. My circle of closest friends has been pretty much the same since the mid-1990s. I still love to travel and go to museums and zoos and botanical gardens. I still love baseball and comic books and TV shows and movies.
And in many ways, I’m completely different. While the circle of friends is pretty much the same, it’s not completely, and there are people who I thought were friends for life in 2004 to whom I don’t speak anymore in 2021. In 2004, I would have identified myself primarily as a writer of Star Trek fiction (and it still makes up a huge chunk of my bibliography), but that is no longer the case. And instead of being Terri’s live-in boyfriend, I’m now Wrenn’s husband.
But the biggest change, and the one that still freaks me out a little bit, is that, prior to 2004, I never considered myself physically strong. I was never athletic, didn’t really do sports, and considered exercise to be this weird thing that health nuts and athletes did, but certainly not for me.
Obviously, that part has changed considerably. Now I’m the guy who lifts the heavy things, who carries all the groceries, who hauls the laundry up the stairs and the garbage and recycling down them, and so on. When my septuagenarian parents need something physical done, I’m the one they call on. (Well, sometimes. My 75-year-old father is stubborn and delusional about his own physical capabilities more often than not…)
The black-belt application that Shuseki Shihan Paul has us fill out before these promotions includes writing down the dates that you got each kyu promotion, and going through those dates was particularly eye-opening, especially with regards to the subject of this essay. Mainly because the arc of my deteriorating relationship with Terri tracks almost perfectly with my rise through the color-belt ranks.
May 2005 was when I achieved my blue belt, and got to shift from the white-belt class to the color-belt class. That same month, Terri and I had a particularly vicious argument that almost resulted in our breakup. And, honestly, looking back, it should have resulted in our breakup. But I can be very stubborn, and I don’t like to fail. That same stubbornness that kept me coming back to the dojo those first few months at the end of 2004 when every pushup was purest agony and comprehension of the techniques was often elusive also made me determined to make things work with Terri.
In August 2005, Terri and I took a trip to Scotland and Ireland. It started as a great trip, and ended that way, too, but in the middle we had another huge argument that nearly torpedoed the relationship, and might have done if we weren’t an ocean away from home at the time. The weekend after we returned to New York, I got my advanced blue belt.
In a fit of madness, Terri and I decided in early 2008 to get married in the summer of that year—right around when I got my brown belt. We postponed the wedding, and finally broke up in the spring of 2009.
The year 2009 turned out to be quite momentous. For starters, I turned forty. In April, Terri and I realized that this was never going to work, and we split up. In addition, 2008 ended with the editor I did most of my Star Trek fiction writing for being laid off (along with a third of the publisher’s staff—this was right after the market crash in the fall of 2008), and suddenly that particular well of work dried up, as his successor evinced no interest in hiring me. In May of that year, I met Wrenn, and we started dating the following month. In July, I was the subject of a comedy roast for charity at a science fiction convention in Maryland, which was a great (and hilarious) honor bestowed up on my by my colleagues, and later that month, the International Association of Media Tie-in Writers presented me with a Lifetime Achievement Award.
And in October 2009, I was awarded my shodan.
Being a black belt has been such a critical part of my self-image over the past twelve years that it’s easy now to forget what a big deal it was for Shuseki Shihan Paul to tie that belt on me in the fall of 2009. And it was the culmination of a year that was full of so much change in my life, though every micron of it was for the better.
The Keith who walked into the dojo in September 2004 could not possibly have imagined the notion of being called Senpai Keith. Indeed, the concept of me as a black belt didn’t even occur to me as a possibility until my advanced green belt promotion (the first promotion that involved sparring). Certainly the Keith who was told by his doctor in the fall of 2004 that he should consider regular exercise would never have seen a black belt in his future…
One other big change between who I was in 2004 and who I am in 2021 is in how I describe myself. Back then, it would have been as a writer, editor, and musician. Now, I can add teacher to that list. I have taught classes to kids and adults in the dojo, as well as private lessons with individuals, plus since 2014 I’ve been teaching karate to kids as part of an afterschool programs in upper Manhattan.
Being a writer is something I’ve always wanted to be, ever since I was six years old and put together a “book” on construction paper called Reflections in My Mirror. Being an editor is something I discovered in college, and was how I made my living for the first eight years after I graduated until my writing career took off. Being a musician is something that has also been part of my life since I was a small child, and while I’ve never made significant money at it, it’s also been a part of who I am for as long as I can remember.
But being a teacher was new. That was never something I expected to be doing or even necessarily thought I’d be good at. And it’s become one of my favorite things—both about being a black belt and about being a person. I absolutely adore teaching, as it has brought me a fulfillment I never expected, and truly enjoy.
In so many ways, the Keith DeCandido who walked into the dojo in September 2004 is the same guy who’s going for his yondan this week. In so many other ways, I’m not remotely the same person in the least.
But I can say this for sure: I liked who I was seventeen years ago, but I like the person I am now a great deal more, and my journey as a karateka is a big part of why that’s so.